An Easy Target: The Lavender Scare of 1950s
“126 homosexuals fired from the state department”, “Dr Luther King is shot dead”, “17 reds captured” and “How to spot a possible homo”, all marked the contentious trends of 1950s America – a time of social revolutions bound with the suppression of uncountable minorities hoping to simply be seen as humans worthy of the liberation they deserved.
Tied with the Red Scare and Civil Rights Movement, America at the time was walking on eggshells, with a chase to power on each side – society and the government. The sole concerned remained gaining control over political and societal opponents. Isolating communities became the natural byproduct.
McCarthyism chased after communists, while the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee was born to preserve racial segregation. With support steaming internationally for Black rights, politicians were slowly losing their supposed firm grip on society. They simply needed a new target, a new community to unleash their domineering attitude onto. Enter the Lavender Scare, a sprint to gain dominance over society by the legal terrorization of homosexuals.
Beginning in the late 1940s and through the 1960s, homosexuals were forced and threatened into unemployment by a Florida State committee. Originally, it was known as the ‘Johns Committee’ since it was called for by the authoritative Florida state senator, Charley Johns. Charley John, influenced by McCarthyism, blamed communists to be secretly backing up civil rights groups when he mentioned in 1958, “there is no doubt, communist people are behind a lot of this race agitation”.
At the time, Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer that carried the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (N.A.A.C.P) was too strong of opposition to the Johns Committee, therefore the chase to preserve racial segregation was only momentary. This loss fueled the Johns committee to find new, weak targets that had not yet been introduced to party politics – homosexuals.
The Johns committee had the strength of investigation and legal influence. Tracing homosexuals, manipulating them and legally terrorizing them was the perfect strategy for the committee. Archives from the time illustrate just how the committee gave way to itself into the admins of universities, schools, as well as campus police, to gain the inner eye to such institutions, leaving no safe place for the queer community.
Looking into transcripts of interrogations of alleged homosexuals, it’s clear to see how they left no room for escape. Interrogations in motels, without access to legal advice, made it impossible for the victim to protect their rights.Questions such as “Have you engaged in any homosexual activity?” or “Did you ever give anybody a blow job?” demonstrated the unbothered, un-permitted entrance into the personal life of the victim.
The committee’s investigation reached such extents that they wouldn’t hesitate to place agents posing as gay men in the washroom to then incite their suspicions into sexual activity. If the other man agreed, he was vulnerable to interrogation. The suppressive nature of these tactics is evident, and it is clear to see how the committee would emotionally handcuff their victims and influence into their minds a sense of fear to be themselves at any given time.
Looking into how the committee legally portrayed homosexuality, a significant factor to notice is when Capt. George Raines, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, presented before the committee a chart defining all labels under the spectrum of sexual identities. He mentioned a category quoted as “Super Normal”, which he then defined as “completely intolerant of homosexuality”. He used this same chart as he taught his students at Georgetown University on the topic. It is integral to note how such definitions that suggested that heterosexuality was “Super Normal'' were communicated through academia and education, those being key factors of character development.
They were illustrating homosexuality as a form of mental ilness, and describing it as synonymous to a social deviance. This was a strategic, efficient move that strung the right chords in terms of isolating homosexuality with the combination of legal factors and social pressure. At the time, homosexuality and queerness was viewed as a deviance from societal norms created to maintain heteronormativity. It was as if the committee urged to embed heteronormativity into the minds of society, to gain the social support they were slowly losing.
Further examples include the Hoey Committee, another investigative committee in Florida, that joined hands with the Johns Committee, to then in 1951 to release a report that created the foundation for the federal government to exclude the LGBTQ+ community from high ranking employment for years to come. The report’s conclusion began with the quote, “There is no place in the United States Government for persons who violate the laws and the accepted standards of morality”. They later mentioned, “Those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sexual activities are unsuitable for employment”.
The factor of social morality was a trigger for the supposed nationalists in society who were concerned about the status quo requiring sustenance, and how homosexuality was deviant of that standard. It created a sense of right-wing fear of losing the standard moral quality, combined with the already pioneering spread of liberalism at the time. Later, this documented conveyance had also convinced the federal government to shun away the LGBTQ+ community for most employment opportunities.
With the arrangement of laws as well as the influencing of perspectives, the Johns Committee’s tactics had led to the forced dismissal of a minimum of 70 teachers and professors in the University of Florida alone. Ed Henderson of the Florida Education Association called to action, “A listing of any teachers known to be guilty of this kind of moral deviation”. Titles of the newspapers read, “State department finds and fires homosexuals”, “California tried to weed out undesirable teachers” and shockingly, “525 sales dept. homosexuals ousted within 5 years”.
It is clear to see how academics had rejected the existence of homosexuality among staff, as perhaps an attempt to avoid normalising homosexuality. Similarly, it is interesting to note how politics also rejected the community, with a similar attempt of blocking the community away from the idea of power. It is clear how not only did the homosexual community face legal and emotional terror but now even economic terror as they lost their source of income.
Later, when the tactics of the Johns committee started attracting attention with news headlines announcing, “Johns committee is facing trouble”, in a societal context, the committee had another strategy to justify themselves. They released a book, known as “the purple pamphlet”, reaching out to “every parent and every individual concerned with the moral climate of the state”. They used hypersexualised images to depict gay men and even went as far as displaying sexualised images of young boys as an attempt to connect homosexuality to paedophilia.
Although this booklet of justification was short-lived, Florida taxpayers were quick to retaliate as they were disappointed with the investment that went into the pamphlet rather than industrialisation or the economy. The Johns Committee lost its funding and had essentially shot itself in the foot, creating a sense of poetic justice for all those victims to their existence.
However, the downfall of pamphlets justifying the wrongs, or the Committee itself, wasn’t nearly enough to repair the trauma that had been already caused. The politicians behind this scheme were still valued politicians, and the victims remained victims of conservatism.
What is shocking to witness is that 50 years later, well into the 21st century, the Johns Committee has yet to recognize that they did anything wrong. In fact, within the state of Florida, it is still possible to get fired for being part of the LGBTQ+ community. Conservatism still exists, and it is valid enough to say that the Lavender Scare is majorly responsible for the significant stigma against the LGBTQ+ community that exists today. It drove the community into politics and made it a significant issue to think about, for those concerned with social morality. Perhaps the reason why it remains a controversial topic in American politics today is due to its history which began in 1950s America.
The Lavender Scare outlines for us the power of politics over society, and how politics often uses strategic tools like legality and morality to highlight or reject communities. This has come to show how easy the Committee has gotten away with a decade-long terrorisation of the homosexual community without resources, simply because it was legalised within the documentation.
Written by Nandini Sarin
Edited by Eshal Zahur and Veda Rodewald
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